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Inside Central Park's Lost Casino

In 1864, a two-room stone cottage was built inside Central Park, just south of the Inventor’s Gate entrance at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street. The quaint building was used as the Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon, where unaccompanied women could rest and grab a bite to eat.

Public life in the 19th century was segregated by sex and restaurants were deemed masculine haunts. “Respectable” women did not dine alone in public and those that did, were automatically assumed to be prostitutes. Instead, they patronized female-friendly eateries like Central Park’s Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon, which restricted male patronage and catered to women’s tastes. “Special pains are taken in many places to cater to these fair lunchers,” wrote the New York Times in 1890. “While women are not all light eaters, most of them are partial to dainty tid-bits, pastry and ice cream.”

As the century progressed, Victorian dining norms softened. In the 1870s, the simple snack hut was renovated and reopened as a full-service restaurant for both men and women. Along with these changes came a new name: The Casino. I began researching The Casino in hopes of uncovering a secret gilded-age gambling joint. Sadly, it was just a restaurant, named for the Italian translation of “little house.” Yet, even without being a poker palace, The Casino had its fair share of sex, secrets, and scandal.

Unlike its modestly-priced predecessor, The Casino’s menu was extensive and expensive, offering a delectable assortment of steak, lobster, chicken and oysters. The mouthwatering menu was only part of the restaurant’s draw. At the time, Central Park - and by extension, The Casino - was the place to see and be seen.

Promenades and carriage parades were a daily ritual of the city’s elite. Fashionable families used these opportunities to flaunt their wealth and negotiate their ranking in New York society. The upper classes “sweep the drives of Central Park every afternoon with their fast teams, whose value ranges from $2,000 to $12,000” wrote the Herald in 1860, “these days, to have money and not own fast horses…is to be nobody.”

The Casino offered rubberneckers front row seats to the park’s pageantry. It was one of the few restaurants in New York City that had outdoor seating. Those lucky enough to snag a seat on the patio enjoyed unobstructed views of the carriage crowd and bucolic scenery.

As the decades passed by, enthusiasm for The Casino began to wane. By the 1920s, the restaurant had deteriorated to such an extent that it was called “a somewhat dumpy nite-club,” by the New Yorker. The Roaring Twenties was a boon for New York nightlife, but The Casino was barely skating by. That all changed when Jimmy Walker was elected mayor in 1926.

“Gentleman Jimmy” embodied the excess and excitement of the Jazz Age. Before entering politics, he was a popular songwriter, known for his 1905 hit “Will You Love Me in December (as You Do in May)?” As mayor, he was more interested in parties than policies. Rather than crack down on speakeasies, Gentlemen Jimmy enthusiastically embraced the city’s underground drinking culture, going so far as to organize a “We Want Beer” anti-prohibition parade in his second term.

Mayor Walker was a “man about town,” traipsing from party to party until the wee-hours of the morning. He would stumble into City Hall around noon and immediately retreat to his personal hangover room. Yes, you read that correctly. During the height of prohibition, the NYC mayor kept an official hangover recovery room in City Hall.

“Directly under the Mayor’s own office, reachable privately via circular staircase was the Mayor’s hangover room,” explained the New York Times in 1976, “equipped with a bed he had sometimes been known to use and an exercycle he had never been known to use. A similar staircase in Room 9 led equally privately to the reporters’ handball court and locker rooms, which occasionally served for poker games, drinking and sex.”

Gentleman Jimmy was a dapper dresser, known for his flamboyant double-breasted suits. In order to gain his favor, Sidney Solomon, a wealthy hotelier, introduced the stylish statesmen to his personal tailor. Deeply touched by the gesture, Walker asked Solomon what he could do for him in return, to which Solomon replied, “I’d like to take over the old Casino in Central Park and make it an outstanding restaurant.”

So in 1929, the long-time proprietor was evicted and Solomon was put in charge of The Casino. The former mayor, John F. Hylan, was outraged by Walker’s legally dubious action, which he described as “a new seizure by royalty of city property.”

The public outcry proved fruitless. For a mere $500,000 ($7 million today), Mr. Solomon transformed the fledging restaurant into New York City’s most exclusive nightclub. He hired Joseph Urban, the legendary set designer behind Ziegfield Follies’, to revamp the aging interior. The renovations included the addition of a tulip pavilion, an orange terrace, a silver conservatory, and a black-glass ballroom. When it was finally finished, The Casino was touted as “the most beautiful and elegant restaurant in the world.”

The Casino reopened to great fanfare. The glitterati drank and danced at The Casino until dawn, stopping only after the kitchen closed at 3 a.m.. Just as the crowd began to dissipate, a fleet of police-escorted limos would arrive. The cars were filled with chorus girls who entertained VIP guests in the private rooms upstairs.

With Walker in charge, prohibition was treated as a guideline rather than a rule. The Casino, like many other businesses at the time, enthusiastically embraced this attitude. "Patrons would leave their Rolls-Royces stocked with bootleg champagne parked outside. The maître d kept an eye on the drinks at the wealthiest tables and when they ran low, he would signal their chauffeur, standing near the doorway, to restock the alcohol from the stash in the car,” wrote The Museum of the City of New York.

Walker kept a second office at The Casino, which was also known as “Walker’s Versailles.” Each night, the bandleader announced Walker’s arrival by playing “Will You Still Love Me in December as You do in May?” as soon as the mayor and his mistress, the actress Betty Compton, walked through the door.

The stock market crashed four months after the Casino opened, which precipitated the Great Depression. For struggling New Yorkers, The Casino symbolized the twined evils of political corruption and economic inequality. Fiorello La Guardia capitalized on this anger during his mayoral campaign. He censured Walker and his cronies for leasing a public building to a close friend for next to nothing. These charges were echoed by the Park Commissioner, Robert Moses, who believed that anything built on city property should be accessible to the general public. “None of the general public can afford to eat in a place like the Central Park Casino,” Moses said. “Such a restaurant does not belong in a public park.”

On May 5, 1936, the Appellate Court granted Moses permission to raze The Casino, which he replaced with a playground in 1937. In the 1980s, the site was demolished yet again to create Rumsey Playfield.

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